You’ve likely seen the clip by now: A Unabomber-bearded Phoenix, offering near-nonsensical replies to an amused Letterman’s sardonic stabs at conversation.
The "Late Show With David Letterman" stint marked the latest dose of weirdness from the talented “Walk the Line” star, who insists he’s quitting acting to embark on a hip-hop career. His brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, has been following him around with a camera, purportedly to make a documentary about the supposed rap conversion.
Letterman, no doubt, experienced flashbacks to past classic uncomfortable moments: an incoherent Farrah Fawcett; a cursing Madonna; the near decapitating high-kick of Crispin Glover. (MTV News compiled some of Letterman’s most awkward interviews here.)
But Phoenix’ antics most recalled the guest who provided Letterman's most electrifying, is-this-for-real moment: Kaufman.
Not everyone remembers Kaufman much beyond his alive-in-syndication stint as loveable immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas on “Taxi.” After all, it’s been almost a quarter-century since he died of lung cancer at 35 (for those who believe he’s dead – for everybody else, it’s been almost a quarter-century since he faked his death).
As a comedian, Kaufman brilliantly turned standup into absurd, often disturbing performance art, doing everything from reading “The Great Gatsby” on stage to transforming into loutish lounge singer Tony Clifton to wrestling women.
It was during his odd pro-wrestling phase in 1982 that Kaufman made his most memorable Letterman appearance, cursing and throwing coffee on Jerry (The King) Lawler after the grappler smacked him. (Lawler, years later, revealed he and Kaufman hatched the bit ahead of time.)
Kaufman’s legend was burnished in death by the R.E.M song “Man on the Moon,” and the biopic by the same name starring Jim Carrey.
It’s unclear if anybody one day will be singing – or rapping -- about Phoenix, whose dazed Letterman turn spurred a furry of speculation about the actor's state of well being.
He did crack a smile, though, at the end of the interview when Letterman quipped, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”
Maybe it was a clue that this is all an elaborate hoax, which is a pretty good bet. If so, bravo – comedy, in this crazy, round-the-clock multi-media world, needs a new infusion of the intentionally surreal, like Kaufman provided a generation ago.
If not, get Phoenix some help – or he may end up having a chance to compare notes with Kaufman a lot sooner than anyone wants.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.